Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Does Fear of Punishment Have a Role in our Service of God?

Ron Heifetz is among the world’s foremost authorities on the practice and teaching of leadership.  He identified two types of change:  adaptive and technical.  The technical is defined as those types that can be solved by the knowledge of experts, whereas adaptive change requires new learning.  When the problem, solution and implementation are clear, Heifetz calls this technical change.  Adaptive change must come from the collective intelligence of a company’s employees at all levels.  Heifetz sets forth six principles for how an individual can lead adaptive change.  One of the principles is not to overwhelm your employees with the nature of the problem but to provide enough tension to create a sense of urgency.  I think that this approach – don’t overwhelm but provide enough tension to create a sense of urgency – is the key to our constant struggle with spiritual growth.

I recently was talking to a seminary educator who remarked that the method of education that her seminary uses to encourage religious growth is to teach her students how to think.  She asserted that some other seminaries may use more guilt to spur religious growth.  She believes that even though the “guilt” approach may be more effective short-term, teaching our students how to think is more effective long-term.

I think this conversation is very much related to another conversation that I have had a number of times with a congregant about the relationship between yir’at ha’onesh, fear of punishment, and yir’at ha’rom’mut, a feeling of awe of God.  He tells me often that he frowns upon serving God based on fear of punishment.  It is a very negative way to live our lives that we constantly are afraid of being struck down by God.  It is far more empowering to be motivated through yir’at ha’rom’mut, out of a sense of appreciation and reverence for God and His Torah.  My sense is that our orthodox community that embraces modernity tends to look far more favorably towards creating a sense of obligation without the guilt and without the fear.  Acting out of guilt and fear is a primitive way at looking at things.  A more mature way of approaching life is to do something because we understand its value and not because we will receive an external reward.

That being said, when I was researching the revolution of the Mussar movement for a lecture that I delivered this past week, what struck me was Rav Yisrael Salanter’s main innovation that transferred the focus of the problem of mussar from the theological to the psychological realm.  Rav Yisrael Salanter’s focus was not so much on understanding our relationship with God and our purpose in this world, but it was how do we struggle with our urges and desires which often push us to act against what ultimately is in our best interests.  He felt that yir’at ha’onesh was a superior tool to deal with these urges and desires.

Rav Kook also was someone who understood the importance of yir’at ha’onesh.  In is work entitled, ”Shemona Kevatzim,” Rav Kook admitted that yir’at ha’rom’mut is a higher level for us to achieve and he refers to yir’at ha’onesh as “yesod ha’gas,” or a crude foundation.  However, he wrote that yir’at ha’onesh is crucial to creating a structure for our spiritual well-being, comparing it to wine sediments that strengthen the flavor of good wine.

What does yir’at ha’onesh, or fear of punishment, create in our daily struggle for spiritual growth?  The answer is that it creates a sense of urgency.  Yir’at ha’rom’mut is a more exalted motivation by which we serve God, but yir’at ha’rom’mut without yir’at ha’onesh lacks a sense of urgency.  If that’s the case, then why do so many in our community recoil at the thought of serving God through guilt and through fear?  Because likely they have had bad experiences when they were made to feel guilty and were told that they are no good or they were made to feel that there is no hope for them.  The move to Chassidut or neo-Chassidut for many in our community partially stems from the desire to feel happiness and not sadness in our lives and in our relationship with God.  And there is something to be said for that approach.

At the same time, we need to create a sense of urgency in our avodat Hashem.  We need to move away from the feeling that at the end of the day, God loves me so it doesn’t really matter if I don’t observe this halachic detail or that halachic detail.  That is why I like Ron Heifetz’s approach regarding adaptive change.  Don’t overwhelm but provide enough tension to create a sense of urgency.  Don’t allow the sense of urgency to crush our self-esteem, to make us feel unworthy, or to paralyze us into thinking that there’s no hope for us.  But feel the sense of urgency, that there is reward and punishment and that there are consequences to our behavior.  Those feelings will help motivate us when the feeling of ahavat Hashem, or love God, and yir’at ha’rom’mut are insufficient to motivate us to follow the correct path.

Should we strive for a feeling of ahavat Hashem and yir’at ha’rom’mut as a more exalted form of a relationship with God?  Absolutely.  However, let us not think that fear and guilt have no place in our religion.  They should not overwhelm us to the point of paralysis, but sometimes they can be useful to create a sense of urgency that we need make adaptive changes in our avodat Hashem.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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